Terrell Strayhorn

Developing Mindful Leaders

Some time ago, I was asked to share my thoughts about Mindful Leadership. Acquainted with the topic but not entirely sure of all that’s included, I did some online research and read several articles published in authoritative sources like ForbesHarvard Business Review, and Huffington Post. Armed with this information, I was ready to share my own perspective and thoughts on the matter. The reporter only needed a few sentences to quote in their featured story, but I decided to write much more assuming that I might (re)purpose the piece as a blog at some point in time. That time is now!


Mindful leadership, in my opinion, is a form of leadership that operates according to the principles of mindfulness. Fundamentally, leadership requires focus, clarity, creativity, and emotional intelligence. Though all attainable and “trainable” qualities, leaders can fall short on these measures due to any number of factors like interoffice conflict, employee disputes, financial uncertainty, and even personal distractions like an argument with one’s partner, bills, or sick children. Using proven techniques to calm mind storms of this kind and to regain the focus, clarity, and balance needed for service to others is mindful leadership.


Mindfulness is important in leadership because it has proven to be effective in maintaining and (re)gaining the focus, clarity, creativity, and emotional intelligence needed for leadership excellence. Mindfulness is the calm acknowledgement of one’s feelings, emotions, behaviors, and thoughts in the present moment without interpretation, explanation or judgment. It’s like the state of being intensely aware of what your thoughts, feelings, and senses are in the moment as a leader without assigning value or judgment to them. It has been shown to alleviate stress, increase well-being, lower blood pressure, and, yes, even (re)calibrate your breathing pattern after a heated argument, annoying meeting, or nail-biting deadline. I think it’s critical to effective leadership–and it has been to my own practice–as it helps regulate my emotions, (re)focus my attention, and allows me to engage my latent emotions in ways that give me license to admit that they exist, work through them, without negative impact on my employees, peers, or the organization.


There are a number of training methods. Check out the Mindfulness Institute, they sell a number of products, trainings, and webinars. In my own practice, I have used a number of effective strategies. Using a (re)starting mechanism, where you close your eyes, listen to your mind, body, and the environment around you for at least 2 minutes or up to 180 seconds. Notice your thoughts, your heart rate. Visualize your chest rising and falling with every breath you take. Now, release each negative thought pattern as you exhale and slowly count down from 5: 5,4,3,2, and 1. Open your eyes and go forth.

I’ve also used the “fruit exercise,” where you ask individuals to imagine a grape or strawberry. Get it in their mind. Imagine it in their mouth and they’re chewing it. Imagine, visualize what that would be like and engage your thoughts, behaviors, movements, and feelings. This redirects all your energy and mental bandwidth to the object of your imagination (not your work problem), which is great practice for developing laser-sharp focus that is a hallmark of successful leadership.

There is a major difference between a boss and a leader. Some people use the terms interchangeably but there are significant differences. Bosses have positional authority, granted by where they fall on the organizational chart. Bosses manage people, make decisions, and can sometimes incite fear in employees with their mere presence. They may have a nice office, dedicated parking space, and handsome salary. But this may say little to nothing about their working relationships with staff, subordinates, peer leaders, and the broader community. Just because someone’s the boss, doesn’t mean they’re the leader.

Leaders, however, have personal respect plus positional authority, which makes them a force to be reckoned with. Leaders, like bosses, get positional authority from where they fall in the hierarchical “pecking order,” but leaders also enjoy respect from peers and subordinates who trust them, value their ideas, and care about them as people. Leaders motivate and inspire, quite often through role-modeling. Leaders don’t ask employees to do something they wouldn’t do (or haven’t already done). Leaders might make decisions but they use a far-more collaborative—dare I say, democratic—process that welcomes input, feedback, challenge, and group ownership.

Yes, there’s a clear difference between bosses and leaders in my opinion. Leaders listen, bosses boss. Leaders give opportunities and optimism; bosses give orders. Leaders take initiative; bosses take credit. Leaders may also have a nice office, dedicated parking space, and big salary, but their most precious commodity is non-monetary: the respect, support, and commitment of employees who look up to you, trust you (and your decisions), care about you because they know you care about them, and want to see you and the team win! We need more leaders, not bosses. #GoTeam #TeamUs #Team28